Randy Wittman isn’t hip. He isn’t young, or modern, or cutting-edge. He often seemed suspicious of innovation; his most famous expression was a pained grimace; and he appeared to enjoy media sessions about as much as vegetarians enjoy steakhouses. He was, in other words, what you might expect from a Bobby Knight protege.
But he also wound up being something I never would have predicted: one of the longest-tenured and most successful coaches in Wizards history.
I know, I know, this is like being the juiciest tomato in a desert. But on the day Wittman was finally fired, let’s take a quick look back at the day he was hired. He didn’t want the job, didn’t want to have to replace his close friend Flip Saunders. The Wizards were in the middle of a rebuild, and had a cumulative .363 winning percentage since their last trip to the playoffs. Washington was 2-15 when he took control; his own career record as a head coach was 100-207. Bad + bad figured to equal bad.
“I’m not real happy about this,” Wittman said that day. “But I am here today because I believe these guys are better than [their record]. I really do believe that they are. I’ve got to get them to believe that. And if we can reach that point, we’re going to show that we’re better than what we are.”
Did you have confidence then that Wittman would coach the team for more than four seasons, would record the best Washington season in more than three decades, would take the Wizards to the second round in back-to-back years for the first time in a generation? Did you have confidence that he would coach the fourth-most games in franchise history, accumulating the fifth-most wins and the sixth-best winning percentage? Did you think he would leave Washington with the best playoff record of any coach this franchise has employed?
Because I didn’t. And I didn’t just count out Wittman in 2012. I counted him out last winter, when the Wizards appeared listless and lost, the season appeared ruined, and the internet was percolating with thoughts that Wittman might be fired at any moment. In fact, I wrote an entire column about the fact that Wittman had been fired, just in case. The draft is still saved in our system. It didn’t age well. Here’s an excerpt:
When fans look back on his tenure, will they miss .. well, what would they miss, exactly? His offense is almost universally panned. His team just finished losing to two of the worst teams in the NBA, one of which seems actively engaged in an effort to tank. He has been actively hostile to the new analytics-based concepts sweeping through the league. His most likable stars — John Wall and Marcin Gortat — have both seemed disaffected and ineffectual in recent days. And if you believe Wittman has maximized his team’s talents, then you are forced also to believe that the Wizards just aren’t very talented.
A few months later, Wittman’s Wizards won their 46th game for the first time since the ’70s. They were again in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and were a John Wall injury away from a likely trip to the conference finals.
Even in this awful season — which crushed expectations, infuriated the fanbase and cost Wittman his job — the Wizards managed to crawl their way back to .500. Here are the coaches who have ever led Washington to three-straight .500-or-better seasons: Eddie Jordan, Dick Motta, K.C. Jones, Gene Shue and Randy Wittman.
It was obvious in recent weeks that Wittman’s tenure was on life support. NBA coaches are hired to be fired, and so are coaches in D.C. If you put aside Ben Olsen and Mike Thibault, the dean of Washington coaches is now Jay Gruden, who just finished his second campaign. Someone was going to answer for such a dispiriting step backward, and Wittman was the natural guy. I doubt you could find more than a couple dozen Wizards fans disappointed by his dismissal. There were even fans who fretted during the past two playoff runs that the success would just extend Wittman’s tenure, staving off any chance at greatness.
Because Wittman’s teams were never great. But, at their best, they competed, and played defense, and were respectable. They were better than most of the last 30 years of Wizards teams, and they were a lot better than I expected.
I had a long conversation with Wittman last winter, during one of the rare periods when no one was calling for his job. He talked about how the franchise was “almost at ground zero” when he was hired, and how he made it clear to management what he needed: more veterans, more professionals, and more defense.
“When I took over, I told Ted and Ernie, this is what I believed, and if you guys believe something different, then you need to hire somebody else,” Wittman said. “We’ve got to get veteran guys in here that can teach these guys how to play. I said ‘That’s what my belief is,’ and they believed it too, and that’s kind of what we’ve done.”
Now it’s time — probably past time — to hire somebody else. Almost inevitably, that somebody will inspire far more excitement than Wittman did in 2012. But he will also face far different expectations. Wittman had almost none, and only a curmudgeon would deny that he exceeded his. Look at the past 30 years of Wizards coaches, and name all the coaches who surprised you with their success. It’s a pretty short list.
I also asked Wittman if he expected to be in Washington so long, because most of the rest of the world did not.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I always expect to stay wherever I go. I mean, when I came here with Flip, yeah, I anticipated staying here a long time. That’s what I believe, anyway. Anywhere you go, whether you’re a rebuilding project or with an established team, if you don’t believe that, then you shouldn’t take the job.”
In his Thursday goodbye note, owner Ted Leonsis wrote that he would “always will remember [Wittman’s] professional, hardworking and honest approach.” Those are different words than innovative and cutting-edge, and let’s hope the next coach embraces those things, too. But they’re probably words the Wizards needed during these past few seasons.